The Information Policy Blog

The (unofficial) blog of the BCLA Information Policy Committee

Tag Archives: law

access, surveillance & edward snowden

As it stands right now, there are three biggish stories going on in the information policy world right now. As is usual with the IPC, access to information is our unifying thread.

First the World Intellectual Property Organization’s treaty that wants to ensure print-disabled citizens can’t have access to materials for them. That’s going on right now. In Canada library organizations are urging Canada’s negotiating team to argue for certain positions:

  • That authorized agencies have the right to bypass a technological protection measure to make alternate format available to another authorized agency or qualified individual worldwide.
  • That the treaty not include a “commercially available” restriction on the cross border supply of alternate formats. This would have the effect of placing cumbersome, if not unworkable, requirements authorized entities and severely impede the availability of content to all, especially in underdeveloped and developing countries.
  • That cumbersome and unnecessary treaty language referencing other legislative (US fair use) or treaty (Berne’s 3 step test) regimes is unnecessary.

CULC’s full letter is available here. One of the issues with these treaties and negotiations has to do with our old friend Digital Rights Management (or TPM in Canada) and how the language of these agreements (and Canadian laws) are set up to benefit well-resourced lobbying groups even while there’s some reasonable lip-service paid. So this is an issue.

There’s also rumbling about Library and Archives Canada putting up paywalls on digitized materials. This one doesn’t have anything official out there yet, so we’ll just link to some preparatory ire.

And then thirdly there’s the big American news about the NSA keeping databases of phone calls and the program PRISM that gives the NSA access to internet companies’ information and just today Edward Snowden came forward as the leaker of that NSA information.

There’s a lot out there on these things to read. David Simon (of The Wire fame) wrote about how this PRISM thing isn’t a scandal because this is how the law works. Warrants are still necessary, and do you really want to take these tools out of law enforcement’s hands?

Frankly, I’m a bit amazed that the NSA and FBI have their shit together enough to be consistently doing what they should be doing with the vast big-data stream of electronic communication. For us, now — years into this war-footing and this legal dynamic — to loudly proclaim our indignation at the maintenance of an essential and comprehensive investigative database while at the same time insisting on a proactive response to the inevitable attempts at terrorism is as childish as it is obtuse. We want cake, we want to eat it, and we want to stay skinny and never puke up a thing. Of course we do.

Others are talking about what shoddy journalism these leaked stories are since all the tech companies are denying that they’re participating. And there’s some indication that all these companies are doing is just making the NSA’s job easier within the bounds of the law.

I have some sympathy with David Simon (and John Scalzi, for that matter) when they say that this whole thing is just how the world works and pretending to be surprised now is bullshit. Money and Power and all that. These are the laws we made to create a legal surveillance state. But that doesn’t make it right. (It’s also impossible to feel any sympathy for (and infuriating to see) a government who is trying to make itself out as the gut-wrenched victim though.)

There’ll be more coming. But one of the things to be aware of here is that even though it’s possible the only person who did anything illegal in regards to this whole NSA program is Edward Snowden for leaking it (and it is very interesting that Hong Kong is where he’s hoping to avoid being extradited; the Chinese probably have more clout on that than they were portrayed as in The Dark Knight) that’s a huge problem. We wouldn’t be able to talk about what these surveillance laws hath wrought if someone hadn’t snuck them out. This just highlights the importance of challenging and changing laws to fit the needs of citizens instead of law-enforcement and spy agencies.

Of course, it is possible to talk about these policies even without a scandal of illegality. Michael Geist has a great post (filled with links and analysis) talking about how the issues raised by PRISM apply in Canada:

Does this mean Canadian authorities are engaged in similar forms of surveillance? That phone companies such as Bell and Telus are subject to warrants similar to those faced by Verizon? That Internet companies co-operate with Canadian authorities? That Canadian and U.S. authorities share information obtained through programs such as the Verizon meta-data program or PRISM? That Canadians are targeted by the U.S. programs?

The law would suggest that all of these things are entirely possible. Given the integrated communications networks and the increased information sharing, it seems very likely. Yet since virtually everything remain shrouded in secrecy, Canadians don’t know for sure.

That “shrouded in secrecy” is the problem in all three of these issues we’re talking about today. As information professionals we need to push for more transparency in our laws. We also need to be working with organizations pushing for more privacy for individuals and more openness for governments (and other powerful organizations). This is one of those times we need to be supporting OpenMedia and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Last word for today comes from Edward Snowden:

The primary lesson from this experience was that “you can’t wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act.”

What do you think we should do?


The Last Days of Aaron Swartz


(Note – this piece is both a eulogy of sorts and a set of practical recommendations for information professionals and academics. If you are already familiar with Aaron’s life and work and are interested in what you can do to further his legacy, you may wish to skip ahead to where do we go from here? I am grateful to my colleagues on the IPC, who helped me draft this statement and gave it the Committee’s endorsement.)

Sometime this past Friday, Aaron Swartz departed this life in despair.

At only 26 years of age, he found himself facing up to 50 years in prison and $4m in fines for his radical belief that information – especially information produced by governments and by scholarly effort – should be freely accessible to all regardless of their wealth or social status. This production of such information was subsidised heavily by the public purse, he reasoned, and its ultimate purpose was ostensibly to serve the public good. Why, then, should citizens pay for the privilege of accessing information their taxes had paid to produce in the first place?

It was an idea so dangerous that the US Attorney’s office was prosecuting him on no fewer than 13 felony charges including wire fraud, computer fraud, and recklessly damaging a protected computer.

His crime, if one were to look beyond the calculated hysteria cultivated by the prosecution, was essentially that of downloading JSTOR articles on a university campus. Many of the articles were out of copyright, and JSTOR itself has since provided limited free access to much of its content. The prosecution went to elaborate lengths to portray Aaron as a dangerous anarchist, a glorified car thief, a monster. “Stealing is stealing”, they shrieked, “whether you use a computer command or a crowbar”.

Never mind that JSTOR, the alleged victim of the crime, refused to bring charges against Swartz for what they only characterised as a “misuse of our database”. Indeed, in the days since his death, they have stated that they “regretted being drawn into [the case] from the outset”. Never mind that MIT, on whose network the alleged crimes occurred, was at best ambivalent about legal action against him and has now opened an investigation into its level of complicity with prosecutors. No, it is increasingly clear that Aaron Swartz found himself on trial not for his actions but for his ideas.

To illustrate this, we might contrast the zeal of Swartz’s prosecution with a US Justice Department announcement – on the very day of his death – that a major international bank would avoid any US criminal prosecution whatsoever for financially abetting “known terror groups, Mexican drug cartels, and rogue governments such as Iran” in what even strait-laced ABC News described as “…one of the clearest cases of criminal money laundering in recent history”. It would seem that in some cases, stealing isn’t stealing after all.

As this news was being broadcast to a weary world, Aaron Swartz hung himself from the rafters of his New York apartment. His ideas, and the price society demanded of him for having them, must have seemed too much to bear. In a moving statement his family characterised his death as far more than personal tragedy, calling it “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach” and refusing to exempt the US Attorney’s Office and MIT from culpability in his suicide. Whatever the circumstances, his long personal struggle with depression – and oppression – were at an end.

His ideas were not.

Let us honour him, then, by speaking of those ideas, and of the remarkable mind which defended them so eloquently and so fiercely for so many years.


Aaron Swartz was a culture hero in the truest sense of the word. In spite of his tender years, he was a mythical ancestor to not only the Open Access and Creative Commons movements but also to much of the technology which underlies the way we use the web every day. At the age of 14, he co-authored an early specification of the now-universal web feed technology RSS; his other contributions to XML are too numerous and significant to even name. He was instrumental in developing and promoting Reddit, one of the most influential and acclaimed information sharing websites in the history of the internet. He pioneered the development of, an early database for sharing metadata about music, and he effectively built the protocol from scratch.

He had a passionate belief that the products of the world’s knowledge should be shared with all its citizens. He is described by Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive (where he worked for a time), as the “architect and first coder” of the groundbreaking, which sought “…to open the world of books to the Internet generation”. Even his contributions to (and analysis of) Wikipedia itself are now legendary. That this should be so is a testament to his longstanding involvement with open online encyclopedia efforts – he won the now-defunct ArsDigita prize for his work on an early example, the Info Network, when he was only 13.

In his later years he became a fierce activist for intellectual freedom and information policy in the public good. He had a ferocious genius for politics, co-founding Demand Progress as a framework for exerting pressure on elected officials to oppose internet censorship. He will long be remembered for his central role in promoting and coordinating opposition to the punitive internet-censorship law SOPA, an effort so successful that an insider recently recalled that “…the feedback was absolutely deafening…it was unlike anything I had ever seen, and most congressional staffers I worked with had seen,” adding that members of congress fearfully ask themselves “is this the next SOPA?” whenever the spectre of internet-related legislation rears its head.

His stunts were the stuff of internet myth. In 2009 he made use of free trial subscriptions to PACER, the US Federal Government’s database of court records, to download approximately 20 per cent of its content and share it freely online. Even the New York Times acknowledged that PACER was “…cumbersome, arcane and not free[…]everything that Google is not”; Swartz was so profoundly repulsed by the idea that citizens needed to pay to access the records of their own legal system that he sought to redress the balance himself. The FBI sought a way to prosecute him, but came up empty. Then, in 2011, he entered an unlocked closet on the campus of MIT and used an elegant little Python script to download several million articles from JSTOR, during which effort MIT had him arrested. Brewster Kahle found this astonishing in and of itself:

“When I was at MIT, if someone went to hack the system, say by downloading databases to play with them, might be called a hero, get a degree, and start a company – but they called the cops on him. Cops. MIT used to protect us when we transgressed the traditional.”

Not this time – Swartz was not so fortunate with JSTOR as he had been with PACER. Although JSTOR itself publicly exonerated him, MIT were not courageous enough to do so before it was too late. Although MIT did not explicitly press charges, their failure to speak on his behalf essentially gave the U.S. Attorney’s office all the excuse they needed to prosecute Aaron on behalf of the corporate interests who ultimately author much of the United States’ – and the world’s – information policy.

The rest, as they say, is history.


Aaron has left us –academics, librarians, archivists, information architects and citizens all – with a daunting legacy. We might argue that he did more in his 26 years to advocate for the principles we hold dear – such those enshrined in the ALA’s “principles for a networked world” or the CLA’s “Statement on Intellectual Freedom” than we have ever dared to undertake or even imagine possible. His life and works challenge all of us to consider to what degree we are serious about breaking down the walls which separate knowledge from the people who might use it to do great things. These walls are built of ignorance, of greed, of cowardice, of the desire to control who may and who may not know.

It is our firm hope that this tragic event will galvanize the resolve of the people who work in fields which deal with the generation, stewardship, preservation, and transmission of information. Where we have fallen short, let us strive to improve. Where we have succeeded, let us build on that legacy. Above all, let us be less willing to shy from the challenging aspects of our work at the level of policy and advocacy – our voices are desperately needed. We no longer have the luxury of silence, and whispering position statements is simply not enough.

Hesitating to engage with the emerging issues around information policy is not enough.

Standing on the sidelines – whether out of ignorance or out of a misguided desire for self-preservation in the face of a difficult funding climate – is most emphatically not enough.

Aaron Swartz deserved better of us. Our users, students, and patrons deserve better of us. And we deserve better of ourselves. We need advocacy and implementation, both at the level of professional culture and individual action.

A few suggestions:

  • Educate yourself about information policy issues – in the last year the library community at large has been deafeningly silent on a number of absolutely crucial measures under debate which adversely affect the informational rights of our users. SOPA is the easy example. What about FIPA, C-11, C-30, TPP – and beyond? If you’ve never heard of any of these, now is the time to get educated. Following on from this…
  • TAKE A STAND on political issues affecting access to information, literacy, intellectual freedom, and education. Don’t rely on tried-and-true cop-outs like “this doesn’t affect my work” or “I can’t see how I can make a difference”. High level information policy decisions affect all of us – as citizens, scholars, and human beings. Aaron saw this, and he did what he could – whatever he could – to stand up for what he felt was right. Which takes us to:
  • Don’t be afraid to have feelings about what is right and wrong, and don’t be afraid to stand up for them. Attempts to disenfranchise and intimidate people should not be tolerated – silence is acquiescence at best and endorsement at worst. Get involved in conversations and advocacy around these issues on twitter, on facebook, on reddit, on your blog, in the press…everywhere. Advocate to your users, to your colleagues, to your friends, to your Board, to your elected officials. Advocate to everyone who will listen – and sometimes even to the people who won’t!
  • If you work at a public library, stand up enthusiastically for reference services as a crucial component of the library’s mission. Recent trends towards diminishing the role of reference in a digital age are often misguided and, at their worst, result not only in further alienation of our user base but a significant diminution of our efforts to help ensure a level playing field for all users.
  • If you work at an academic institution, lobby enthusiastically on behalf of Open Access journals and in support of robust – and binding – requirements for making the products of faculty and student research freely available through institutional repositories. Don’t be afraid to stand up to bullying from copyright and publishing cabals. If somebody tries to sell your institution garbage while insisting it’s lemonade, tell them so – and tell everybody else who will listen.
  • If you work in the archives, push for an increased focus on generating standards-compliant descriptions of your holdings and uploading those descriptions to provincial, national, and international databases such as MemoryBC and ArchivesCanada. Where such portals do not exist, lobby for their creation – or build them yourself.
  • If you are an academic, commit to publication in Open Access journals wherever possible and make the case – loudly – for Open Access supporting tenure. The more people adopt it, the more powerful it becomes; be part of that progress! Consider sharing your works publicly on your own website and on twitter using the hashtag #pdftribute. If you don’t have a website, think about creating one.
  • If you work in programming, information architecture, or systems, commit wherever possible to authoring and using open source code shared freely under open FSF-approved licences such as the GPL. Lobby enthusiastically for open source software wherever and whenever you can – your ILS, your archival management software, your office software, even your operating system. Linux is a great place to start. If we learned to use it, you can too.
  • Wherever you work, advertise your services widely, prominently, and in plain language – especially on the institution’s website. Make sure users understand how you can help them address their information needs in ways that are relevant to their lives.


© 2013, Myron C. Groover/BCLA-IPC. Licensed under the Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 3.0